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Cumberland County’s 1st Graduate of Veterans Treatment Court

By Drew Brooks,

Air Force veteran Garrett Vann turned his life around with the help of new Cumberland County court team that includes the judge, lawyers and many volunteers.

It wasn’t an easy road for Garrett Vann. A little more than a year ago, the Air Force veteran – with two tours to Afghanistan under his belt – was at a low point in his life. He was homeless, battling substance abuse and facing several felony charges. Vann had little connection with his family, including his parents and his daughter. He couldn’t hold a job. Put simply, Vann said he had an “uncertain future.”

But today he’s on firm ground, with a renewed support structure, steady job and, for the first time in years, goals for a future. On Tuesday, Vann marked that transformation in a courtroom filled with those who have helped him along for more than a year. In a first-of-its-kind ceremony for Cumberland County, the judge, prosecutor and Vann’s lawyer signed paperwork dismissing his case in return for his work in an intensive program aimed at helping veterans retake control of their lives. Vann is the county’s first Veterans Treatment Court graduate.

During and after the ceremony, officials praised him for his efforts in regaining control of his life, and praised the program that put him in a position to succeed. District Court Judge Lou Olivera, who presides over the court, said Vann has himself to thank for deciding to change his life. “The transformation was amazing,” he said. But the judge also said there was a team behind Vann, ready to prod him along and give him support as needed. “It’s really a team effort,” Olivera said. “It takes everyone. You have a lot of people there to pick you up.” Cumberland County court officials see Vann’s success as a sign of things to come.

There are a dozen other veterans in the treatment court, with eight more “in the queue,” according to the court’s coordinator, Craig Shore. Shore described the court as walking a fine line between jurisprudence and treatment, advocacy and accountability. The court was the second of its kind in North Carolina, and counts itself among a nationwide list of “264 and growing,” he said.

The court team includes lawyers, judges, law enforcement, substance abuse and mental health providers and a team of volunteer mentors. When needed, that team helps get veterans into substance abuse treatment, or finds them homes or jobs.

“We exist for the veterans,” Shore said. “We are a holistic, wrap-around court.” But that service doesn’t mean the court program is easy for the veterans assigned to it. The men and women are held to strict standards, with regular court dates and drug tests. Violate a court rule, and punishment can range from a required essay to weeks in jail. Those who succeed make the efforts worthwhile, Shore said.

Some argue the nation owes its veterans the support found in a treatment court. Shore doesn’t disagree, but said the court is something more than payment for services rendered. “What we’re doing here is a moral imperative,” he said. “This is higher than paying a debt.” Olivera agreed. He said Vann’s journey will serve as inspiration for others like him in a community best known for its ties to the military.

Cumberland County is home to the nation’s largest military installation, Fort Bragg, and the largest per capita veteran population in the country. The court, which started in 2014, was the culmination of years of efforts spearheaded by now-retired Chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Keever. Olivera recognized Keever on Tuesday, bringing tears to the retired judge’s eyes as he mentioned her father, who spent 26 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. Judge Keever “had the vision” and “saw the need,” Olivera said. And now, others have taken on the mission.

That includes a team of volunteer mentors that includes Roy Howell, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy well before Vann was born. Howell’s Vietnam service, and Vann’s Afghanistan tours, linked the pair into “a brotherhood that transcends age,” Howell said. When the two met, both were new to the Veterans Treatment Court, and Howell said he was scared. “I hoped and prayed I could offer this veteran what he needed,” he recalled.

Howell said he tried to be genuine. The two met for church, meals or just to play guitar. “It was just a matter of establishing a relationship with my brother,” Howell said. That relationship was extremely important to the court’s success, Vann said. Looking back, the former airman said it was his choice to turn his life around. But he may not have succeeded without Howell’s friendship.

Now Vann hopes other veterans will follow in his footsteps, and he is considering being a mentor himself.

“I want others to know about the program,” he said. “Veterans need to know it’s here.”

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